JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — “It’ll come back,” he told himself, staring at the sky. “Just lie here. It’ll come back.” He could not feel his hands or feet. He could not feel his skin against the turf. Through his helmet he heard the dying roar of the crowd, which had suddenly realized the bad news: Chucky Mullins wasn’t getting up. Try the fingers, he thought. Nothing. Try the toes. Nothing. Now the trainers were around him. They were screaming, calling for a stretcher. They pinched his arm. Nothing. “Everybody back!” someone yelled.
“DON’T MOVE HIM! . . . Chucky moaned. He blinked. He thought about the lick he had just laid on that Vanderbilt receiver. Man, it was a beauty, a real stick; no way he catches that ball. No touchdown for Vandy. Ha! But my toes, where are my toes? His body was limp; it slid where they pushed it. An airlift was called. The hospital was alerted. As they carted him off, tied to a wooden board atop a stretcher, Chucky Mullins was still waiting for his soul to return to his limbs. “Five minutes,” he told himself, “it’ll be back in five minutes. . . . “
This is the story of the last Mississippi player to arrive for the Gator Bowl. He came in a wheelchair on Sunday. He rolled through the airport. He will make no tackles in Tuesday’s game, but he will move people, more than any of his teammates will. That is the purpose for Chucky Mullins now, to move people. Back when he was a teenager, he used to throw his big body recklessly, wrestling with friends. One time this kid Tony came to the house, and Chucky greeted him with a bear hug, and the next thing you know they were rolling on the floor, and there’s this big crash — BOOM! They broke the bed. They laughed. That was Chucky Mullins, smiling as he touched you.
The crazy thing is, in a way, he’s still doing it. Start with the fingers
“Fingers,” says Carver Phillips. He takes Chucky’s left hand and begins to move the digits, one at a time. Bend the pinky. Bend the pointer. Bend the thumb. Ten times. Now the wrist. Now the elbow. Bend, stretch, bend. . . .
This is daily life for Roy Lee (Chucky) Mullins, who was paralyzed from the neck down. He looks at his limbs, so soft now, so dead. Sometimes Carver, bending his knee, makes a joke: “Your leg is so loose, I might wrap it around your head.” Chucky smiles. He keeps hoping for a tingle. An itch. Some feeling. He waits. He watches TV. He chews the food that Carver slides into his mouth. He talks into a special voice- activated computer — “Lights!” he barks, “Off!” — and the lights turn off. He sleeps.
Carver Phillips waits, too. Here is the first person Chucky Mullins touched, long before the accident, before that football play in October 1989 that shattered four vertebrae and changed their lives forever. Back in the early ’80s, Carver Phillips had been a young recreation worker with a wife and two children in Russellville, Ala., Chucky’s hometown. One day he learned that Chucky’s mom had died of pneumonia. He shook his head. He knew the Mullins kids from the rec center. He knew their father was out of the picture. “What will become of them?” he wondered.
He went to see Chucky, who was 12 and living with a nurse, an older woman. Carver took the boy to a few ballgames. They talked sports. One day, Carver’s phone rang.
“Can I come live with you?” Chucky asked.
They have been together ever since.
Normally, Carver went to the Mississippi games to root for Chucky, who had grown into a 6-foot, 170-pound defensive back. But on the day of the accident, Carver’s car broke down. When word came that Chucky was hurt he had to borrow a car to get to the hospital. On the radio, he heard about the play, how Chucky, a redshirt freshman, broke up a potential touchdown by slamming his helmet into the back of Vanderbilt’s Brad Gaines — only his head was bent at a funny angle, and — crack! — he just dropped to the turf and didn’t move. Medics would later tell Ole Miss football coach Billy Brewer that Chucky
“should have been dead by the time he hit the ground. It was like taking a hand grenade and dropping it down his spine.”
By the time Carver entered the hospital room, the doctors were cutting off Chucky’s football pants. There were screws around Chucky’s head, and weights and cords. His whole body was in traction. Carver saw that Chucky’s eyes were open. He tried to smile.
“My football career is over,” Chucky whispered.
Carver, his legal guardian, took a hotel room near the hospital. He stayed the next four months and never went home. Instead, he studied the doctors. He learned how to clean the tube in Chucky’s throat, how to suction the saliva so Chucky could breathe, how to transfer Chucky’s limp body from bed to wheelchair, how to work his toes and fingers and limbs. This wasn’t his son. Did that matter? He had helped raise him. Fed him, clothed him. Two years earlier, Carver, who is only 35 himself, had contracted a lung disease. He could no longer work. He had trouble breathing. A religious man, he wondered what God was doing with him, banging him around this way.
“What is my purpose?” he remembers asking one night in prayer.
And now he had his answer.
Chucky. Old friend touched
Chris Mitchell was the second person to be touched. He and Chucky knew each other from high school, where both were star players. As freshmen at Mississippi, they grew close, they hung together in the dorms. Chris would come back from class sometimes and find Chucky and another friend, Tony Harris, wrestling on the floor.
“You guys are like a couple of kids,” Chris would say.
“Aw, we just miss our girlfriends,” Chucky would answer.
They built a friendship on fast food and football. And rides home to Alabama. One time the three of them were in the car with another friend. They drove over a hill — and froze. Coming up the hill were two 18-wheel trucks, side by side, trying to pass each other.
“TONY, PULL OVER! Chris screamed.
They screeched off the road. The trucks passed. Chucky, who had been sitting in the front, had not said a word. Finally, he turned around.
“I wasn’t scared a bit,” he said.
The car exploded in laughter.
Chris Mitchell remembered that story the day they carried Chucky off the field. I wasn’t scared a bit. He thought about it the first time he visited Chucky in the hospital. I wasn’t scared a bit. What do you say to your buddy when you know he will never walk again? What can you say? You pretend you’re not scared a bit and you go in. During one visit, the TV began to replay Chucky’s final tackle. Chris froze. Should he shut it off? Ignore it?
Instead, the two friends watched it together, watched the bodies collide, the football pop away, and Chucky’s hands suddenly drop as if his batteries had run out. When it was over, there was silence. Finally, Chucky took a breath. “It was a hell of a lick, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Chris, nodding, “you stuck him.”
Mitchell sees Chucky all the time now. Last spring, Chris was chosen the best defensive back during football drills. Brewer, the Mississippi coach, came to him with an idea. Since they had played similar positions, would he wear Chucky’s number this season?
“I got chills,” Chris recalls. “Then I said yes,”
And so on Tuesday No. 38 in your program will be Chris Mitchell. And next year, the best defensive back will wear that jersey. And the the best next year, and so on.
One life touches another and another.
Chucky. Celebrity pilgrims
He still could not wiggle a finger. But the touching continued. The Governor came to visit. President Bush. Janet Jackson.
And, most important, the embrace of his own backyard, the Mississippi campus, a place forever tainted by the bloody racism of the ’60s. Attitudes change slowly here, and many feel the school is still not far from the days when white men with rifles awaited James Meredith, the first black student. Only two years ago, a black fraternity house was burned to the ground. Last year, as a white fraternity prank, a pledge was stripped naked, painted with the words “nigger” and “KKK” and abandoned on an all-black campus.
But Chucky. Chucky seemed to cut through this color war. One week after his injury, students — including frat members — walked through the stands during the Rebels’ game against LSU. They collected money. They were hoping to get $50,000. They got nearly $180,000. When Chucky was flown to the Liberty Bowl last year, white students called his name. Supporters waved banners. No one loses prejudice overnight. But the first step is to realize we all bleed the same.
“It was like Chucky had touched their conscience,” says Brewer.
Or maybe become it. A university that once cried “NEVER, NO, NEVER!” to racial integration, has now built a black student a home near campus. Paid for the whole thing. Chucky lives there today. The touching continues. No self-pity
And finally, to him, and here is perhaps the biggest surprise of all: Where you expect self-pity, there is none. Where you expect depression, there is laughter. He sits in the wheelchair, with the tube that helps him breathe still piercing his throat. When he wants to move, he taps his head against an electronic pad. The chair moves forward. Another tap. It stops. “One day,” he says, “I’m gonna get out of this thing.”
He laughs, but he is not joking. Chucky Mullins, his body frail now from atrophy, still watches his old films, still points himself out to visitors
(“Look, that’s me running there. . . . Look, that’s me making that tackle.”) He is determined to move again — despite his doctors, despite the medical books. A few months back, his left arm began to twitch. He felt a flush of emotion. “Hey!” he told Carver.
“Do it again,” Carver said.
He did it again. Today, he can lift the arm almost to his face. If they can rig a device for his still-limp hand, maybe one day he can feed himself.
“When this first happened, I kept thinking the feeling would come back. I thought that way for a couple weeks, even. Then eventually, I accepted it. But I never got depressed. I never felt sorry for myself. Why should I? I’m just another human being . . .
“I’m not sorry I played football. I loved football. . . . I would tell a young kid to play if he wanted. But I’d also tell him to never take one day for granted. That’s what I’d tell him. Never take a single day for granted.”
He will join his teammates today. And he will be there Tuesday when they play Michigan. Carver Phillips, who found his purpose, will be alongside him. And Chris Mitchell will be wearing his number. And the fans, white and black, will see him from the stands and maybe they will cheer.
You look at Chucky Mullins, who is 21 years old, and you ask, “Why him?” Isn’t it enough to grow up poor? Isn’t it enough to lose your mother and barely know your father? Isn’t it enough to be a good kid through all this, a kid everybody loves? Isn’t it enough? And the answer is, there is no answer. There is only this: Tuesday is New Year’s Day, a traditional time to clean the slate, to plan our lives. And Chucky Mullins, who, incredibly, seems happier than most people, is here to remind us about priorities.
“What would you do,” he is asked, “if your body finally came back to you, right now, this minute?”
“I would get up and run,” he says. “And run and just keep running.”
You see him smile. You want to cry. And your first New Year’s resolution is this: Never forget his story. Never take a single day for granted. Run as far as you can, as fast as your feet will take you, because if Chucky could, he would.
Funny, no? Sometimes, the people who can no longer touch us are the ones who touch us the most.